Alice stared up at the ceiling. Then she stepped onto one of the folding chairs, and from there onto the table.
“What are you doing?” Poppy asked.
Alice went up on her toes and shoved at one of the ceiling tiles. It moved over, showing the metal grid that suspended it. Beyond was only darkness, like the gap left by a missing tooth. “I have an idea,” she said. “Look at how low the ceiling is in here. And look at the door—it’s different from the others; the knob is really shiny.”
“So?” Zach said, walking over and frowning at what she was doing.
“Everything else in the building is old, but in here everything’s new. This was built recently. I bet the drop ceiling hides an older, high ceiling, and there might be some venting or something to crawl through in the new wall.”
“You’re really going to go up there?” Zach asked.
“Brace the table and I will,” Alice said. “It’ll be just like climbing the monkey bars on the playground back in elementary.”
Zach stared at her in awed amazement. “Do you even think this will work?” he asked.
She looked back at him. “It works in the movies.” She jumped, caught the metal supports, and pulled herself up into the dark as though she was in gym class.
“Even if you get to the other side,” called Poppy, “the door’s still locked.”
Zach started grinning. “No. Miss Katherine leaves the key in it. If she can get to the other side, she really can open the door. We’re getting out of here.”
“Ow,” Alice said from above them, muffled by the tiles still in place. “I can’t see the vent.”
“Maybe there isn’t one,” Poppy said. “Come back down.”
They heard a metallic clang and a sharp yelp, then more clanging. Zach hoped against hope that Miss Katherine’s office was soundproof. Then the clanging stopped and there was a solid sound, like a body hitting the floor.
Poppy looked at Zach, a kind of wild hope in her eyes. He grinned at her.
Then the door opened, Alice standing on the other side and breathing heavily. “Come on,” she said. “Quick.”
“Okay,” said Zach. “Here’s the plan. We all go look for the Queen. I’ll take the basement. Poppy, you retrace your steps. Alice, you take the stacks on this level. We all meet up on the side of the library—the one that’s close to the street. Okay?”
“What if we don’t find her?” Alice asked.
“We have to find her,” Poppy said.
“Since we’re split up, we’re not going to know who finds what, so we just have to cover as much ground as we can and then meet up.” Miss Katherine might be back soon. She could have gone out for the promised lunch, but that still didn’t give them much extra time. They had to be quick. “See you guys in ten.”
Poppy nodded and started toward the couches. Alice saluted and headed for the stacks.
Zach walked down the stairs to the basement. He felt a little bit guilty knowing he had a reason for deciding to look for the Queen in the basement—a reason that only sort of had to do with finding her. He wanted to read about the Kerchner guy who’d made the pottery. He wanted to know if he was really some relative of Eleanor’s.
The basement was quiet, the only sound coming from the wind blowing through the window they’d left open. It was dark in the hallway, and he could see why he hadn’t noticed the display: the lights in the case were off. He felt along the wall until he found the switch and flicked it.
Suddenly the cabinet sprang to bright life. The pieces inside were made of some porcelain so thin that it was practically translucent and shaped into the most fantastical forms. There were teapots corded with garlands of tiny perfect flowers; egg cups shaped with a filigree netting in the quatrefoil pattern of old church windows, all of it in shining gold; and vases with intricately shaped arms, their bodies painted with a delicate pattern of cherry blossoms. All the pieces seemed to glow from within, so thin and fine was the bone china from which they were made.
They were just like the pieces in Zach’s dream of Eleanor, except that these were perfect.
And there was a plaque in the center with a black-and-white picture of a stern-looking man standing near the river. It read:
Despite the successes of American potteries in East Liverpool at the turn of the century, they were still considered no match for their European cousins. Patriotism and ambition pushed Wilkinson-Clark China to make something unique, a new porcelain so fine that it would secure the place of their company as not just equal to, but better than any the world over. They wanted to make art.
Orchid Ware was the result of a collaboration between two men: Philip Dowling and Lukas Kerchner. Dowling was a pottery technician and a specialist in clay chemistry. He had considerable experience and was able to come up with the process that allowed Wilkinson-Clark to create a porcelain that was very thin but also possessed sufficient structural integrity for commercial production. Part of what made the porcelain so solid was the high percentage of bone ash from cattle bones that were degelatinized and then calcinated at very hot temperatures.
Kerchner was the artist. Rumored to be difficult to work with and often found shouting at underlings or accusing them of spying on him, he was also a genius, able to coax beauty from clay. His steady hand, wild imagination, and myriad influences—Art Nouveau, Moorish, Persian, and Indian, as well as the English and German pottery of his childhood—helped him make Orchid Ware objects that were wholly different and altogether finer than any porcelain produced in East Liverpool before. Kerchner became obsessive, working around the clock and refusing to allow the sale of any piece that was less than perfect.
Orchid Ware took off immediately. Highlighted at the World’s Fair in Chicago, it won numerous awards and stunned the international ceramics community. Immediately there was demand among the discerning ladies of the day. Even the First Lady commissioned a piece. But despite the flood of orders, Orchid Ware turned out not to be profitable to produce. Each individual piece took too much time to complete, and many were destroyed in kilns built to fire much sturdier ceramics. Others broke during shipping. For every piece that survived, fifteen were either broken or deemed too imperfect to be salable. But despite the drain Orchid Ware was on the company’s finances, Wilkinson-Clark’s pride forced them to continue producing it, even at a loss.
Then tragedy struck. Lukas Kerchner’s daughter went missing in the early autumn of 1895. Quickly, though, sympathy turned to terror when blood and hair were discovered in his office in the factory and on a leather apron belonging to him. It was hypothesized that he had murdered his daughter and used the method of calcinating cattle bone to dispose of her body. This was backed up by the accounts of his late wife’s sister, who had been a caretaker to the daughter, and who reported Lukas Kerchner coming home in an unhinged state of mind and locking her in one of the rooms in their large Victorian home. When she escaped from the room, he and his daughter were already missing.
Lukas Kerchner denied murdering his daughter, but gave no explanation for the evidence found in his work space, nor an account of his daughter’s whereabouts, saying only, “I am not her killer, but I am the one who has given her new life.” Further questioning caused him to break down, screaming and weeping and insisting that his daughter “was like an angel who fell to Earth” and was “his most perfect creation.” He was convicted of murder and sentenced to execution.
After his conviction, the production of Orchid Ware ceased. All told, pieces were made for less than three years, but are still avidly collected today and are very valuable. Every few years, rumors surface of fantastical pieces made by Lukas Kerchner at the height of his madness—samovars, a working porcelain clock, and even a jointed doll—although given the fragile nature of Orchid Ware, these rumors are unlikely to prove true. Still, the mystique of Orchid Ware persists and will probably persist for many years to come.
This collection is on loan from a private collector.
Zach stared at the plaque. He read through it again to be sure he understood it, his own dream echoing in his ears. If what he and Poppy had dreamed was true, if Eleanor was real, then Lukas Kerchner didn’t kill his daughter. Her aunt must have caused Eleanor to fall off the roof, and Lukas—who, murderer or not, was clearly supercrazy—must have found her body and decided that the only fitting tribute was to turn her into a doll made from his precious Orchid Ware.
A shudder ran through him. It felt like electricity sparking over his skin.
Upstairs, he heard a sound like someone calling out—maybe calling a name. Miss Katherine must be in the library looking for them. Zach didn’t have any more time to worry about Lukas Kerchner. He had to find the doll. He had to find Eleanor.
Quickly he walked into the first room they’d come into from the window. It was carpeted in blown paper, making the floor seem covered in fallen snow. There was no doll, though. Not on any of the filing cabinets or on the bookshelf on the far end or underneath the desks.
Crossing the hall, he went into another room, this one piled with boxes of books. He peered into each, but there was no sign of the Queen.
Then, not sure where else to look, he ducked into the girls’ bathroom. He’d never been in the girls’ room before, and there was something embarrassing about it. He definitely didn’t want to get caught there. Looking around, though, it wasn’t that different from a boys’ bathroom. The tile was pink, and there were no urinals on the wall, just a row of three stalls and a single sink—but otherwise, it was identical. He walked toward the sinks and the mirror without much hope, until he noticed the metal trash can resting against one wall.
The Queen was there, lying inside the trash can, on a bed of wadded-up paper towels, her odd eyes staring up at Zach. He took a sudden, startled step back and met his own gaze in the mirror.
But even that was strange. Instead of his regular skin, he saw a face made from cracked white china with black holes where the eyes should have been. And when he opened his mouth to scream, his reflection stayed perfectly serene, lips motionless on what seemed almost like a mask.
Then he blinked and he was looking at his own face. Everything was normal, except that his heart was hammering against his chest.
He told himself that maybe Poppy had gotten up in the middle of the night and come down to use the bathroom. Maybe she’d been half-asleep and had left the Queen on a sink and the doll had fallen into the trash. It was a weird explanation, but he was going to assume that was what had happened. Otherwise, he was going to have to accept that she’d lured him to the basement so he’d read her story. Maybe later he’d be okay with thinking about that, like once he was out in the sunshine again.
He was also going to assume that he’d freaked himself out and that’s why he’d thought he saw something in the mirror—something that clearly wasn’t there.
Zach leaned down and carefully took the Queen out of the trash. Holding her to his chest, he started to run—out the door and up the stairs, hitting the front door of the library with his shoulder and plunging out into the cold autumn day.
ALICE WAS ALREADY WAITING ON THE SIDE OF THE library, squatted down and half-hidden behind a bush. She was about to say something when she spotted the Queen in his arms and jumped up.
“You did it,” she said in a half whisper. “You found her!”
He nodded vigorously. “Where’s Poppy?”
But just as the words came out of his mouth, Poppy rounded the corner of the building, running toward them. He caught a glimpse of pink hair behind her. “Go!” she shouted. “Go! Go!”
They pelted down the street, racing through winding roads that led to Main. After a few blocks, Zach paused, panting. When he looked back over his shoulder, he didn’t see Miss Katherine anymore. He wasn’t sure the librarian’s bright-yellow shoes with the bows were the kind that you could run in.
“We made it,” Zach said.
“You found the Queen.” Poppy smiled at him. She hadn’t smiled like that since before he’d lied to her about William, since before they started the quest.
He found himself grinning back. “I found something else, too. About her story. I think I know what she wanted us to find out.”
“Not now,” said Alice, shaking her head. “We’ve got to keep moving. For all we know, the librarian might be calling the cops.”
“Do you still have the directions to the cemetery?” Zach asked Poppy.
Poppy nodded. “But we aren’t going to make it there on foot. Unless—” Then she took off again, racing up Main Street.
They ran after her. She stopped in front of the gaming store, where a few bikes rested, some chained to a nearby pole and two leaned against a wall. She eyed them speculatively.
“You can’t be serious,” Zach said. “We’re just going to—”
Poppy picked one up and started to walk with it toward Alice. “You pedal,” Poppy told her. “I’ll get on the handlebars. And I’ll tell you where to go.”
Alice nodded, throwing her leg over the bike and steadying it.
“No worse than taking the boat,” Poppy said, climbing up onto the front of the bike. “We’ll bring them back. If we’re fast enough, maybe whoever they belonged to won’t even have finished their game yet.”
Shaking his head, he grabbed the other unlocked bike. Shoving the Queen inside his sweatshirt, and with one arm holding the old, creepy doll in place, he mounted the seat and pedaled off after Poppy. They whizzed down the street, hair blowing behind them, his legs pumping harder and harder as they sped on.